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The Herebefore

Claire Crowther

The Herebefore is the result of three years’ work thinking and researching about the way women look back to a female (probably literary) forebear. It arose from an unpublished set of sonnets. I often rework and combine material because I find that separate poems deal with an ongoing exploration of a theme and so are connected and sometimes are helped by being fully meshed. I usually try in my poems to float surrealist moments across a firm ground of observed reality. That’s because I want to reflect my daily experience of confusion without losing the reader completely.

The Herebefore

The grandmother sings to the marvellous stove

and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop


It’s indefensible, falling in love with the dead

but every so often a young woman, hungry

and broke, brakes a borrowed car, leans forward,

listens to the bard in the marketplace


and sees the black and white of what hasn’t happened

to her yet: a grey basket of bread

turning brown. Similarly, an old woman

in black among men wearing white, apron and shirt,


watches to see their future in what’s been stopped.

Of the unrealised celebrities on the cobbles,

one is lulled by the absence of home into speaking

to me: Stare into my memory. Sleep being sideways,


we sidle into clay, set and stamped down

by poets, ice shaving soft hairs from our skin.

The newly dead can hear for half an hour;

what can the old, dead for a century, hear?


Who she is, a granddaughter knows, myself:

unexpected as a voile caul of rain

on the oak or the minute pools that hang in bracken

to look through. Sun, you’re not the only thing


that thinks it’s the centre, raced round by worlds.

My herebefore, I‘m no less your granddaughter

than one who would stay down a lane narrow enough

to need indents to let another pass,


who would have liked you to wait and see if the work

of eternity rolled up. But you ran off

where pink blackberry flowers net dark-leaved

old nettles and humble the water lilies.


In no-man’s land meet me, set a time:

the lattermath of war. There I rock on the steel,

slit to ribbons above powered pleats of water

falling weeded from the mirage of a still pool


to its spun slip of lace torn off by black ground.

Two bridges cross the same moat, allowing travellers

to stay separate. A heron looks up: someone

has ground a stone against wet grass. Then he ducks


again and his neck coils into black and white

before straightening, rising slowly, the long

bottle-stopper beak pointing west

as the lost woman arrives, her lover lifting


an empty crash of raw silk, a gorgeous

light mass but she is aged by the sun

far into rut and root. No one would know her.

None of us know her logic of flight


to that old village function in a long dress,

children in imitation paging behind her,

a train of family holding the fabric of future

carefully out of the mud. Wedding in memoriam.


She ran over fields, jumping stiles, into woods,

disappearing, a rabbit, flapping her handmade jacket

pockets. Coming back isn’t what the dead do.

You lied when you said you were always home for tea.


Stay still, lean on your hand-cut stick, thorn

or new ash picked from a growing hedge or from wild

seeded trees, young, straight, unbarked

except for thin grey skin. Trees throw a thousand


buds out of fingertips that point to our ancient

cutting, thronged with stranded sticks of sapling.

The thinnest trees have tried to seed, grown

a bit, been defeated. The gullies, the pores in the grass


filled with dead plants – it’s how we breath.

Mind is here, thinking through its litter.

The bike man, mending her Princess Sovereign,

lugged and brazed, with gold-lined mudguards,


ding dong bell, tyre-driven dynamo headlamp,

skirt guards and wicker basket, says: ‘Every cell

has been replaced in my shop. None of it is truly

her machine.’ I drive to Hob’s Moat


where there are no weathercocks, buy red silk

with blue stripes, anything rather than walk

the fields in their rotational rest. She waits,

her shoes battered as oak bark. Rather than find


no thorn and nothing branched,

tethered, only the suicide-flower, ragwort

winched by a chlorophyll cord. We are braked

not scotched. ‘Has she dropped off the earth?’


My grandfather sent a card explaining. So why

do I find her watching an arts festival

in the square when a future for my crossroad

and estate is all I am looking for?


If I’ve misrepresented her, a grandmother

painted beside a candle who claims gas light,

it’s because rain diffuses our images.

She would have been in her element, arc-lit


in gold water, being filmed on stage

reading poems about sun, flanked by flowers,

her face a gleam of all her profiles projected

at once. We would watch her cross the wall


with her words, the woman below copying

the woman above, an image of synchronicity,

as tightly turned as her every stall at my desk.

No skull but a new-coined queen.

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